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Retailers eye digital channels in the wake of COVID-19 disruptions

When the global pandemic forced many retailers to close their doors with virtually no warning, few realised the longer-term implications the crisis would have for the sector.

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Forced to stay home and forego all but essential of trips, consumers limited most of their spending to staples such as food and cleaning products. Discretionary spending nosedived.

With lockdown conditions now easing and stores reopening except in Victoria, many retailers are unsure what the coming months have in store. Most suspect that the traditional conditions and patterns that they enjoyed prior to COVID-19 are unlikely to return any time soon.

Retail landlords are nervous too. They fear that some stores that closed up in March may never reopen for business. They are contemplating a future when the shopping mall of the past has to evolve into a very different beast.

A digital shift

While many retailers had already established an online presence before the virus emerged, for most this played second fiddle to their physical storefronts. While allowing customers to make purchases online, they were also often used for research before a trip to the store.

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This emphasis is now quickly changing. Retailers are increasingly recognising that foot traffic in malls and shopping strips is unlikely to return to pre-virus levels. For this reason, they need to make their online presence as appealing to use as possible.

Behind the scenes, retailers are also evaluating the systems used to connect with suppliers and maintain an efficient supply chain. The requirement for reduced physical contact means these processes must also become more digital and less reliant on human-to-human contact.

The security challenge

This rapid rise in the importance of digital channels for retailers creates a challenge when it comes to achieving effective IT security. Ensuring everything from business systems and customer data to transactions and payments are secure at all times is not an easy task.

In the past, retailers have relied on traditional tools such as firewalls and virtual private network (VPN) links to keep their infrastructures locked down. Visiting customers had to confirm their identity with a password or other credential to ensure that those completing transactions were who they claimed to be.

Now, with traffic levels increasing and the ways in which customers are choosing to shop online evolving, retailers need to find better ways to ensure security is maintained at all times. Data exchanged with suppliers and partners also needs to be protected when being stored, processed, or transmitted.

The benefits of a ‘zero trust’ approach

Rather than following the traditional perimeter-based approach to security, increasing numbers of retailers are adopting a strategy dubbed ‘zero trust’.   The zero trust architecture shifts security functions to focus on protecting the user/device in any location, rather than securing a network perimeter that is eroding away. This ensures that users get secure, fast, and optimised connections, no matter where they are connecting from or device they are using.

Devices that can be protected using this approach include everything from databases containing customers records to finance systems, web portals and even point-of-sale devices. Once each is protected using zero trust techniques, perimeter lock-down measures are no longer required.

Once all the components of an IT infrastructure have been secured, the perimeter becomes meaningless. Users can access online stores securely and efficiently, while suppliers can query back-end systems to check orders and inventory levels.

So far only a few larger retailers have adopted a zero-trust approach to their IT security however, with the retail space now radically changed, this number is expected to increase quickly.

Taking the time today to investigate this strategy and how it can add value to your firm will pay big dividends in the future. It’s time to begin your journey to zero trust now.

Budd Ilic is country manager Australia and New Zealand at Zscaler